The Wearing Head Coverings by Women in the Worship Services
Written by Bartel Elshout
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Reformed Practice - Male/Female Roles

Rev. Bartel Elshout and the HRC Consistory of Chilliwack, British Columbia

Paul uses some important theological arguments when he exhorts the women in the congregation of Corinth to cover their heads and men not to cover their heads during public worship. As the majority of Bible commentators from the past and some from the present explain, the wearing of an appropriate head-covering by women during public worship is not optional. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 that this is divinely mandated, and that failure to do so is an act of disobedience toward God’s revealed will. 

Some state, however, that Paul teaches in verse 15 that the woman’s hair is her covering, and that therefore no physical covering is required. Others claim that Paul says in verse 16 that the wearing of a physical head-covering is only a custom, and that we have no such custom in the church of God. 

It is not just a custom

These interpretations are seriously flawed for the following reasons: 

First, such an interpretation of verses 15 and 16 ignores what Paul has written in verses 1-14. To hold to such a view would create the impression that Paul has been arguing about something that does not really matter and that in verses 15 and 16 he apologizes for any confusion he may have created. Such an argument would mean that 1 Corinthians 11:1-13 has little or nothing to say to the New Testament church today. This obviously cannot be the case! Paul, who so brilliantly lays out his points, being inspired by God, in all of his letters, is not suddenly theologically inept here by contradicting in verses 15 and 16 what he has convincingly stated in verses 3-13. He makes clear in verse 2 that he wants the Corinthian church to keep the apostolic ordinances he has delivered to them, and then proceeds in verses 3-13 to explain that the wearing of the head-covering by women (and the not wearing of it by men) is one of these ordinances. In other words, verses 15 and 16 can only be properly understood by taking into account that which has been stated in verses 3-14. To explain verses 15 and 16 divorced from the context in which they are found is to take Scripture out of context. 

Hair cannot be the covering?

Second, if one believes that a woman’s hair is her covering, and if one would consistently apply that interpretation to verses 3-7, 13, it would render these verses ludicrous. What happens if we substitute ‘hair’ for the verb ‘to cover’ or the noun ‘covering’? The passage would then read as follows: 

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having hair on his head, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth without hair on her head dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman have no hair on her head, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her have hair on her head. For a man indeed ought not to have hair on his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man… Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman prays unto God without hair on her head

Thus the insistence that hair is equivalent to head-covering would render what Paul is saying in these verses nonsensical. This leads to one conclusion: Paul, as the divinely inspired writer of 1 Corinthians 11:15-16, cannot negate or contradict what he has argued compellingly in verses 3-13. 

Also, if 1 Corinthians 11 simply meant that women should have long hair and men short, there would be no need to specify that this should be when they meet for public worship (to pray and prophesy) as this command would apply to all times and places, not just to church worship services. 

Female insubordination

Therefore, before we address what Paul is saying in verses 15 and 16, we must address what he is teaching in verses 3-13. To examine this passage in its proper context, we need to understand the following: 

First, in the larger context of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is dealing with issues that pertain to public worship. Specifically he is addressing two problems that had surfaced in the public worship of the Corinthian church: 

1. Insubordination of women to divine (male) authority in public worship (that is, when the congregation is engaged in public prayer and public teaching); and 

  1. Abuse of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. 

Second, Paul deals with the female insubordination problem by addressing a sin that reinforced this insubordination, namely, the failure of the Corinthian women to wear a headcovering in public worship - the visible symbol of submission to divine authority in public worship. Paul recognizes that addressing the head-covering issue will assist in resolving this insubordination, for the wearing of the head-covering will be a visible and physical reminder to the women of their divinely appointed place in public worship. He addresses this issue also in 1 Corinthians 14:35-36, when he writes: ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church’. 

Third, when Paul uses the words ‘cover’ or ‘covering’, he uses a Greek word that means ‘veil’ - a word that refers to a cloth covering. It is noteworthy that in verse 15 he uses a different Greek word for the word ‘covering’, referring to a much more generic type of covering. He does this because he is talking about two different kinds of covering. In other words, when he talks about the hair being a covering in verse 15, he is talking about something very different from the veil or cloth coveringhe is referring to in verses 3-13. 

Let us now consider the theological arguments Paul uses to convince the Corinthian women that by refusing to wear a head-covering in public worship they are disobedient to God’s revealed will for public worship. Paul, consistent with his position and skill as the master theologian of the New Testament church, advances three weighty theological reasons why women must have their heads covered during public worship. 

Argument 1: A Divine Hierarchy

The wearing of the female head-covering in public worship visibly reinforces God’s authority structure in the community of the church - a community that recognizes and submits to divine authority. Paul teaches us here that there is a divine hierarchy that must be observed. That hierarchy is as follows: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of the man, and the man is the head of the woman. Or to put it this way, the divine order is God, Christ, the man, and then the woman. Paul tells us in verses 3 & 4 that if a man engages in public worship with his physical head covered (his hair is not the issue), he dishonours his spiritual head, Christ. In a sinful way he would be challenging God’s established hierarchy. 

However, to emphasize that the woman’s place in this divine authority structure is not the same, but that her place is one of subordination to the man, she must cover her head in public worship, for by not doing so she would place herself on the same level as the man, and thereby would challenge and defy God’s hierarchy. Thus Paul is teaching that it is God’s revealed will that the woman’s head be covered in public worship as a visible reinforcement of His, the Creator’s, established hierarchy. It was the failure of the Corinthian women to understand this divine hierarchy that led them to engage in what only men may do in public worship: engage in public teaching and prayer. To counter this serious problem, Paul goes to great length in explaining why the head-covering must be worn, for he viewed it as the divinely appointed antidote for such disobedience to God’s revealed will. 

Paul reinforces this argument in verse 7 when he emphasizes that the man’s head may not be covered since he is ‘the image and glory of God’; that is, he is the divinely appointed representative and bearer of authority in the church. Since the woman is the glory of the man, that glory must be veiled, so that only God’s glory be visible in His house. Since that glory is symbolized by her long hair (v15), this glory must be veiled or covered in public worship. In public worship only God’s glory (reflected in the man) must be visible, and man’s glory (reflected in the woman) must be veiled. 

Therefore, when a woman engages in public worship with her head uncovered, it is a symbolical statement that she views herself as being on par with the man in terms of God’s hierarchy. Paul teaches us here, as he does elsewhere in the New Testament, that such equality is contrary to God’s created order. 

As we read these verses, let us keep in mind that it is the Holy Spirit who moved Paul to address this issue in detail. He (the Spirit) did so in anticipation of the resistance there would be to this divine hierarchy in the New Testament Church - including the church today. 

Argument 2: Creation Order

Recognizing that his argument would meet with resistance, Paul advances another argument that is rooted in creation itself. In theology an argument that is rooted in God’s original creation order is always one of the most powerful arguments that can be made, for it recognizes that in redemption God restores and enhances His original created order. To reinforce that in God’s created order and hierarchy the role of the woman is subordinate to that of the man, Paul stresses the following:

The woman was made from the man; not vice versa (v8). 

The woman was created for the man; not vice versa (v9). 

Paul is emphasizing that the woman’s position in God’s order of things, also in the church, is rooted in the order in which God created the man and the woman - and in His purpose in creating them in this order. God created the woman to be the man’s helpmeet (ie, a help suitable for him) and his ‘completer’. Therefore to allow women to have a position of equality in public worship is contrary to God’s creation ordinance. This challenge to God’s order cannot be permitted in the public activity of the church, for it defies God’s revealed will. Also in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 Paul uses the creation argument to establish this position when he writes, ‘Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression’. 

This is what Paul is also teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9. Here he presents the theological argument as to why women must cover their heads in public worship, and why men may not. The observance of this divine precept becomes all the more important in a culture that rebels at all levels of society against God’s created order and authority structure. 

Lest there be men, however, who would abuse their God-given position of headship, Paul hastens to add in verses 11-12 that in their status before God, men and women are equal and are fully dependent upon each other. And yet they are not equal in the roles which God has assigned to each of the sexes. In God’s order the woman’s role is one of subordination rather than leadership, and to challenge that order is an abomination to God. In recognition of that, Paul therefore spends a great deal of time explaining why women must have their heads covered in public worship. 

Argument 3: The Angels

As Paul presents his argument from creation, he inserts another supporting thought. In verse 10 he says, ‘For this cause [that is, the woman being created for the man] ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels’. The Greek word translated here as ‘power’ is the word frequently translated as ‘authority’. We find this word in the well-known words of Christ when He says to His disciples, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth’ (Mt.28:18). With equal justification this could be translated as, ‘All authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth’. The connection is obvious: authority is inextricably linked to power. One who has authority over others can exercise power over them. 

What Paul is therefore telling us in verse 10 is that in order to reinforce God’s creation order, the woman must have authority on her head, thereby confirming what we have already concluded: the head-covering is a symbol of divinely instituted authority. It is by wearing the head-covering that the godly woman confesses her willing submission to this divine authority, and that she knows her proper place in God’s hierarchy. Therefore, the wearing of the head-covering in public worship is a public statement by the church, as well as by the woman who wears it, that they willingly submit to God’s authority structure. 

Why does Paul mention the angels in this connection? In the context of verses 8-12, he does so to reinforce his logical and theological argument. First, the angels themselves are the perfect example of willing submission to divine authority. They know and honour their proper place in God’s order, being ministering spirits who are ever ready to do God’s bidding. We read of this in Psalm 103:21: ‘Bless ye the Lord, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his, that do his pleasure’. That is why Christ teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer that we should pray that God’s will may ‘be done in earth as it is in heaven’. In other words, we should be as ready to do God’s will as the angels are ready to do God’s will in heaven. So the angels are set before us here as the ultimate example of unquestioned and unconditional submission to God’s will. Consider also the sin of the angels that fell; they were not content with their God-appointed position. 

Second, Calvin argues that the angels are always present when God’s church worships. They are the unseen guests. Since they are the ultimate example of whole-hearted submission to God’s authority, they are most pleased when the church in her public worship displays her submission to this authority - a submission that is also visibly displayed by women veiling their heads in public worship (cf Calvin’s comments on 1 Cor.11:10). 

Having supported his teaching that it is God’s revealed will that women cover (or veil) their heads in public worship by way of three theological arguments, Paul then asks, ‘Judge in yourselves: is it comely [ie, proper] that a woman pray unto God uncovered?’ (He is obviously not talking about women praying without hair.) In light of his arguments, there is only one logical answer: It is not proper for women to pray in public without their heads being covered. 

Hair length

It is only at this point, after Paul has rested his case, that he refers to the woman’s hair. After having made his point theologically, he now uses an argument from nature for any who might still not be persuaded. Paul is saying in verse 15 that not only is there a theological difference between men and women, but there is even a visible difference - a difference reinforced by the length of hair. It is the long hair of the woman that sets her apart from the man, and Paul here argues that this natural difference simply underscores that there is a well-defined theological difference. It is as though Paul is saying, ‘If God has given the woman a natural covering (not the word ‘veil’ or ‘cloth covering’ of vv3-7), then I should not have to argue about the fact that in public worship God requires a physical covering whereby her glory is veiled’. Therefore, verse 15 is really Paul’s fourth argument in support of the divine mandate that women cover their heads in public worship. 

Only now will we be able to understand what Paul means in verse 16. He is saying, ‘If any man, after all the solid arguments I have advanced, still wants to argue (be contentious) about something that is God’s revealed will, we (the churches) have no such custom; that is, we do not debate endlessly about something that is taught in Scripture. In the churches, God’s truth is not up for debate’. In other words, Paul is saying, ‘If anyone still wants to argue about this, I will not be a party in this debate. I have made my point, and I now move on to the next issue’.

Do not be argumentative

Elsewhere Paul also warns against such a contentious spirit toward biblical teaching, when he writes, ‘If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth’ (1Tim.6:3-5). 

And so it is with apostolic (and thus divine) authority that Paul teaches that one of the ways in which godly women display their godliness is by willingly covering their heads in public worship. Failure to do so is disobedience, and therefore dishonouring to God and grieving to His Spirit. 

It is for this reason that there are a growing number of churches in evangelical North America that have reinstated the biblical practice of women wearing a head-covering in public worship. These churches have come to believe that Paul’s use of theological arguments in support of this position makes it clear that women wearing a head-covering in public worship is a divine ordinance taught in God’s Word and not a result of legalism or tradition. 

There are a number of Reformed denominations in North America and the Netherlands who now endorse women in church offices. The disturbing fact is that it appears that in some cases the pathway toward this unscriptural position began with the rejection of the teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 regarding the divinely mandated use of the woman’s head-covering in public worship. Once the symbol of the head-covering was rejected (along with all of its theological implications), a first step was taken that could ultimately lead toward teaching that women should also be permitted to hold positions of authority in the church as office-bearers. 

This down-hill trajectory underscores the fact that the headcovering issue is more important than some deem it to be. A careful study of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 teaches that God’s precept regarding head-coverings is binding for the New Testament church until Christ returns. Therefore a disregard for this divine precept governing public worship can produce will-worship - a worship of God according to our notions rather than the teaching of His Word. 

And thus also regarding this issue we are to remember that we are forbidden to add to or subtract from Scripture (Rev. 22:18-19), for in doing so we will make the Word of God of none effect. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, what is at stake here with this head-covering issue is the teaching of God’s Word in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 regarding God’s revealed will for public worship. To deny that Scripture here requires that women wear a head-covering in public worship and men do not, has serious implications; it would mean that: 

  1. 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is such an ambiguous passage of Scripture that it cannot be determined with certainty what the Holy Spirit is teaching here. 
  2. Paul in this passage writes as an inept theologian, who uses various important theological arguments, and then basically tells us to ignore what he just said. 
  3. We cannot know with certainty which portions of Paul’s writings are applicable for the church today. If 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is only applicable to the Corinthian setting, then it can also be argued that other portions of Paul’s writings are only applicable to the circumstances of his day. 

Given the fact, however, that Paul expresses himself in a clear and logical fashion (as he does in all of his epistles), devotes one half of a chapter to this subject, and supports his argument with fundamental biblical principles, the only sound conclusion is that Paul’s explicit insistence that women wear a head-covering in public worship is because in God’s wisdom the head-covering represents biblical truths that are of fundamental importance. 

It also needs to be understood that Paul’s instruction was not merely intended for the Corinthian church. The opening words of this epistle make clear that Paul’s instruction was intended for the entire New Testament church: ‘Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1 Cor.1:2). We conclude therefore that it is important to take a stand on the headcovering issue. We need to do so in order to defend the integrity of God’s Word and of Paul’s writings, and as a component of public worship that visibly reinforces God’s authority structure and created order in His church. May God give us the wisdom both to understand every part of His inspired Word correctly and the courage and steadfastness to submit to it - also 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

Rev. Bartel Elshout is an Emeritus Minister in the Heritage Reformed Churches. This article was printed in The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth and is republished here with permission.